Two years ago, Nola and Brent Peacock of Jackson, Wyo., weren’t sure their daughter, Annika, then 13, was ready to take on the Cache Creek Mountain Bike Race.
“It’s really hard, it’s not a kid’s race. It’s not that long, but there’s a lot of elevation gain,” said Mrs. Peacock, whose husband decided he’d ride behind his daughter in case she needed extra motivation. She didn’t. “She had her own grit and eye of the tiger inside her, and I had not seen that before that race,” Mrs. Peacock said.
Like many of today’s parents striving to raise strong daughters, the Peacocks had heard no shortage of advice on how to grow gritty girls: Take them to a march. Let them fail. Make bossy a virtue.
Now they are ready to add a new activity to the list: Ride a bike in the woods.
A small but dedicated group of organizations are using bikes as tools for female empowerment, and some research backs them up. A 2015 study published in The Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning found that girls showed significant gains in measures of resilience after completing a five-day mountain bike camp called Dirt Divas. One month later the benefits persisted, “even after they went back to their home environments,” says Anja Whittington, the lead author on the study.
Dr. Whittington notes that other adventure sports might have produced similar results. And to be sure, such sports can be good for boys. But ask any fat-tire rider and she’ll tell you, anecdotally, the sport is a perfect fit for building women’s confidence and drive.
Bicycles have a storied historical role in empowering women. “Suffragists used to say, ‘Woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle,’” said Dr. Danielle Swiontek, a professor of women’s history at Santa Barbara City College. “This was independent transportation that allowed women to go and do what they wanted.” The requirements of riding also pushed women to reject heavy hoop skirts and restrictive corsets, playing a critical role in women’s dress reform.
Today, mountain biking can help to counterbalance two of the challenges of adolescent girlhood: increasing concerns about adhering to gender and beauty ideals, and decreasing feelings of confidence.
“Girls, at large, experience so much hesitancy and a normative drop in confidence over the middle school and high school years,” said Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a developmental psychologist and the chief girl and family engagement officer for Girl Scouts of the USA. The organization has worked to counter the cratering of confidence that can occur during the teen years in part by sending girls out into the woods to do things like mountain biking. In the period where most girls are experiencing a confidence drop, “our girls actually experience a confidence boost,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald.
Lea Davison, a two-time Olympic mountain biker and co-founder of Little Bellas, a nationwide program that teaches girls ages 7 to 17 how to ride, has found that the earlier girls start, the better. “At 7, 8, 9, they don’t have any fear. It’s ideal because you’re learning these mountain bike skills when you don’t have any fear. So with them, we actually have to hold them back a little bit,” she said. But as girls get older, “there’s this really interesting transition that happens where they get more timid. I think they’re concerned of what other people think.”
Kristin Borda, who is the program lead for a Little Bellas chapter in New Jersey, witnessed how concerns about what their peers might think can melt on the bike trail on her group’s first outing. “There’s a super steep dirt hill on the trails we ride,” she explained, and many of the girls were wary. But then a couple of them asked if they could try it.
The first girl didn’t make it to the top of the hill. That spurred another rider to try. “Before you know it, everyone is saying ‘I want to try next.’ I mean, they’re not making it up this hill. We spent 30 minutes, and they were not making it, but they would not give up. They wanted it so badly,” she said. And no one seemed to care how they looked when, stalling out mid-climb, they tumbled over sideways.
Concerns about beauty standards can likewise lift the moment a mud puddle turns a girl riding a bike into a Jackson Pollock painting. “On cold, rainy days we have mud competitions, so it takes the girls’ minds off of ‘Oh, it’s 35 degrees and raining.’ It’s kind of the opposite of gender norms for girls,” said Ms. Davison.
Dr. Whittington, who takes young women on canoe trips as part of her research, adds: “I love to watch them transition from caring what they look like to not caring. I love how it challenges their femininity and the social constructs they live in.” By day five, when the girls need to portage over land, they happily embrace the challenge. “When someone asks if they want help they’re like, nope, we’re all set, we’ve been carrying these for several days.”
Of course, there’s mud on soccer fields, and you can learn stick-to-itiveness from basketball drills or batting practice. But mountain biking doesn’t come laden with the politics and expectations of team sports. “No one sits on a bench,” said Ms. Davison, “and no one gets stuck playing just a single position.”
Even better: Parents are often left sitting in cars at the trailhead. “Parents are parents,” she says, and every now and then one gets aggressive about his or her child’s performance. But as soon as the kids ride off and into the woods, they’re free to recreate on their own terms.
What they do, once they get into those woods, can be pretty empowering. “There’s a certain work ethic you have to have to be a mountain biker,” said Annika Peacock, who is now 15. “If there’s a section of the trail that’s really hard for me, I’ll go try it five more times. I say to myself, yes, yes, yes, I can do this.” And then the next day? “I go back and do it again.” She now competes against other teens as part of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, an organization working to bring mountain biking programs to high schools throughout the United States.
Annika’s mother says of her daughter, “She’s this petite little bundle of smiles, but she has this self-talk inside her that says ‘I can do this’, and she will ride and re-ride something until she gets it. There’s this resilience she’s trained in herself. She’s fierce.”